Mazda Concept Cars: Japanese At Last


Asked about the influence - or lack of same - from Ford corporate design boss J Mays, van den Acker said that Mays is a great supporter but has left him alone. That was no doubt helped by the fact that those who saw the early models of this "gracious flow" design theme were immediately won over, even conservative marketing people who usually just want what the most successful competitors have. The new, natural way to express motion simply pleased all hands. "The idea sells itself," van den Acker claims, and we're inclined to agree, having been smitten by the first of the series, the centered-driver Nagare (the word means "embodiment of movement") coupe shown at Los Angeles in November 2006. The gull-winged Ryuga sedan that debuted at Detroit in January 2007 further impressed us. The first car was executed in California by Franz von Holzhausen's team, the second in Mazda's main studio in Hiroshima, where Yasushi Nakamuta is design director.

The third car in the series, the gently nonaggressive Hakaze SUV shown in Geneva last year, came from Mazda's studio in Frankfurt, run by Peter Birtwhistle. The Taiki, the sporty two-seater seen at Tokyo, was done in Atsuhiko Yamada's experimental studio in Yokohama, which also produced the Senku concept that earned our approbation as the best concept at the 2005 Tokyo show [By Design, February 2006]. In a true tour de force, all four recent concepts were shown together in Tokyo, showing how well designers from widely differing cultures had integrated the basic idea, keeping an emphasis on Japanese character. It has now come full circle, with Irvine creating the ALMS-based Furai, the unexpected but welcome fifth car in the series. Van den Acker says that it is an actual three-year-old, 450-hp rotary-engined race car chassis in a Nagare-style body shell.

It's a bit more complex than that, but it's clearly in the line of descent of the other exercises. All five are characterized by wavy, not-quite-parallel lines on the body flanks, as delicately delineated as surface details on Japanese porcelain. I haven't seen any scaled-down models of these cars yet, but when they do exist, I want one of the first four - the Furai's wing end plates would be a bit too sharp - as a netsuke, those little sculptures developed over the past 300 years as toggles for hanging small items from kimono belts, or simply carried in sleeves or pockets as soothing shapes for fingers to caress. Indeed, the Furai's ribs are more pronounced, looking more like fan blades on a jet engine, even to the convoluted twists they make, as befits a car designed to celebrate Mazda motorsports.

To us, the five Mazda concepts show the potential for the design theme to be adapted to the entire range of Mazda production vehicles, each with its own characteristics, yet all clearly belonging to the same family, whatever their purpose. That approach has historically worked for other carmakers, and it should still work today. All of the concepts' interiors are strikingly related to the external flow lines, both in their shapes and in the fine details. The delicacy and crispness of the flowing lines must have been a true challenge to the modelers, who likely shaped every one of them purely by hand. In cross section from the peak of each rib, the surfaces flow as negatives to the positive underlying surface of the body sides. Integration of lamps and windows into the overall forms is particularly elegant, even on the race car, where function took precedence over style.

Many Japanese designers are confident and positive about what they have accomplished - justly so - and they talk of expressing Japanese character in their most recent designs. Shiro Nakamura, one of the best design chiefs practicing today, insists that his Nissan GT-R could not be anything but Japanese. We see it as a really good design, not something related to a thousand years of aesthetic refinement. The Mazdas, we think, are exactly that.

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